An AMC Story: Doing Business in Latin America
By: Victor H. Garcia
When I decided to start VHG Consulting, providing association management services, I always had in mind using the network of contacts developed during many years of travel throughout Latin America. The starting point of this journey was based on the fact that most of the information produced in the United States regarding association management is available only in English. Therefore, a huge gap exists in regard to the practices used by associations in other parts of the world that do not have access to learn and share practices with those in the association community that speak English.
I also considered the accessibility to information and the use of the latest technology in order to provide our clients with the best products and services possible within the budget limitations of our company. Cloud computing and online tools such as Google Apps are concepts that we have embraced from the beginning to allow us to become more efficient and work remotely from the United States to provide our services in real-time to our clients in Latin America.
We specialize in offering association management services to nonprofit organizations in Latin America, and we provide our services in Spanish and Portuguese. We are also focusing our efforts in those Latino organizations in the United States that target the Hispanic population, because we think we can offer not only added value based on our bilingual expertise but also an understanding of the Latino culture in the United States and in Latin America, as well as our association management expertise. Having lived and traveled extensively in the United States and Latin America gives us the unique opportunity to understand the differences in the Latino market, in the United States, and in other Spanish-speaking countries.
Some would say, as most of us Americans do, that English is the universal business language. But when you have clients located in other parts of the world and they do not speak English, you cannot expect them to learn your language in order for you to get their business. Instead, you have to adjust to the needs of your clients and offer your products and services in their language.
Being able to speak in more than one language opens up significant opportunities but, more importantly, introduces you to different ways of seeing the world. I find that, in order to do business in other parts of the world, it is not only necessary to speak the language but also to understand the client’s culture. Sometimes, it’s easy to think you speak a language because you took a few classes during your high school years or you have traveled to Cancun for vacation and know how to order a drink. However, there is a totally different environment when doing business, as you not only need to speak the language but also need to have proper writing and reading skills and be able to give presentations in order to obtain new business and make yourself known.
This question was obvious for me: How do we offer services to associations located in other countries in a foreign language without opening offices in each of those countries? How do we keep our clients happy knowing that the services they will receive are provided remotely? And more importantly, how do we keep the board happy and involved with this new option of managing their associations?
Use of Technology
Luckily, thanks to globalization that the world has experienced in the last 15 to 20 years, technology allows us to do business anywhere around the world as long as there is a computer and internet access. The very first thing I did was research the kind of technology that would allow us to offer our products and services in the languages our clients speak (Spanish and Portuguese).
Soon, I learned that this was no easy task. Even though many technology products are currently offered in the market, not all of them have the ability to offer the same experience in other languages as their original English counterparts. Some of the existing technologies will offer you the opportunity to use their products for your associations in other parts of the world, but the programs are still written and developed for English speakers. So, if you are looking to find businesses in non-English speaking countries, this is a major limitation. We even had the opportunity to talk to some software company owners who were very interested in developing their products into other languages, but they wanted to do it in partnership with our company. This was not necessarily what I was looking for at that time; I wanted products that had already been developed and tested in other languages and in other countries.
It was also important to ensure that I was not going to be chained to a network of servers and that I would be able to access information among our staff and our clients from anywhere in the world. This is how I became aware of a new concept called cloud computing. It is amazing how you no longer need to have hardware to keep your information tied to a physical server. Plus, the scalability and access in the cloud is almost instant. I realize this new concept may be hard to accept for folks who have always relied on servers, computer software, and hardware that you can physically see and touch, but one advantage of entrepreneurship is that you can test out the best options and the most accessible prices so that you can compete with other companies. That’s the beauty of free competition; companies improve their processes to benefit the final consumer, eventually bringing prices down no matter where you are in the world.
So how does it work? With your own personal computer, you remotely access your cloud server and control it. You can put whatever you need on it without ever actually physically touching it. The key to cloud computing is to be open to new ways of doing business and to leverage the advantages of technology. This is true for any AMC software that you might need for your clients, whether it be association management software, a new website, event management software, or accounting software. Even banking can now be done completely online.
Another very important aspect of our business is the accessibility of information to our clients and to our client’s members. It was very important for me to have an email system that could give us instant access from anywhere in the world, where we could have as many users as we wanted, and that was reliable and affordable. That is how we came across Google Apps, a cloud-based technology that allows the members of VHG Consulting to do just that. Whether we are on a trip to Mexico or Argentina, with our personal laptop or not, members of our team can access their VHG Consulting’s email accounts on the cloud from any computer that has internet access. They can instantly connect with other colleagues and staff without a need to connect remotely via virtual private network or to wait until they’re back in the office. Even more impressive is the fact that we can use all of this technology on your smart mobile devices.
Another powerful tool for our business model is the use of Skype. Having the ability to talk to our clients face-to-face for free is incredible. For those that do not have a Skype account, you can always dial directly at very affordable rates. Google Voice is another tool that allows you to call any phone number in the United States and Canada for free using the Internet. You can even use Google Voice free calls on your smart phones to avoid using minutes on your phone plans.
Finally, it’s important to mention that most of our clients are associations that are completely volunteer-run and are already legally established in their countries of origin but do not have physical offices or staff. Therefore, making the transition into our business model is easier by allowing the board members to dedicate more of their time on strategic planning and less on operational tasks. Our model is based completely on the trust level that our clients have on our staff and the added value we bring to the table. At the end of the day, the members are the ones that benefit the most, as they will have the most up-to-date technology and best practices in association management in their country and in their language.
What makes us different from other AMCs that offer global expertise is that we export our services to other parts of the world from one central location in the United States. Many of our clients find it beneficial to be associated with a U.S.-based company rather than trying to deal with local companies because of the accessibility of the latest trends and technologies that are available to them.
Victor H. Garcia, MBA, is president and CEO of VHG Consulting, LLC, based in Orlando, Florida. Email: email@example.comVolver